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Alaska Nanuuq Commission in Shishmaref

The Alaska Nanuuq Commission and the US Department of Fish and Wildlife were in Shishmaref Friday to detail a new international quota for subsistence hunting of polar bears in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

The culmination of decades of work by former Nanuuq Commissioner Charlie Johnson, who passed away in April, the quota agreement brings together subsistence hunters in Alaska and Chukotka, with the backing of both the Russian and US governments.

After a phased implementation next year, the quota is expected to officially begin in 2014, and allow 58 bears to be taken each year, 29 per country. Rhonda Sparks is the regional coordinator for the Alaska Nanuuq Commission.

The reason why there’s a quota system is there was a native-driven initiative to ensure future generation use for both sides. We did hear other hunters comment and say that it is important for them to hunt, and subsist, and go back to one of their traditional used resources, and that’s polar bear.

Nearly 200 people turned out for the meeting in Shishmaref last Friday. Polar bear hunters in attendance generally seemed to accept the quota. But their questions focused more on the food shared by both subsistence users and polar bears: seals. Since last year, diseased seals suffering from an unknown illness have been found in the North Slope and the Bering Sea. Hunters at the meeting in Shismaref expressed concern about what diseased seals might mean for polar bears. Stanley Tocktoo, the local Shismaref representative for the Nanuuq Commission, says the polar bear quota doesn’t seem as important as the health of the seals.

 I don’t see it really effects Alaskans too much, but we’d like to work with the Chukotka side, the Eskimo side, but they have a different government, a different way of doing things. But the polar bear eats the seal, just like we depend on the seal. We’ve got things to worry about with the bearded seal losing their hair and their fur.

Warren Ningeulook is a polar bear hunter in Shismaref. He said that, with a healthy—if uncounted—population of polar bears in the Chukchi and Bering Sea, a quota doesn’t seem necessary.

I don’t think there should be any quotas. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Because the number of polar bears that were estimated for the population in Alaska and the other countries are pretty healthy for the population. I think it would, uh, the population would start to go down if Russia is allowed to hunt again.

Alaskan hunters take about 30 bears annually—close to the proposed quota—but hunting polar bear in Chukotka has been illegal since 1956. Fish and Wildlife biologist Jim Wilder says that leads to an unsustainable illegal take that is impossible to manage. The new agreement will allow for a legal—and manageable—harvest in Chukotka.

Polar bear harvests in western Alaska are certainly within sustainable limits. But on the other hand, the best available information that we have indicates that the level of killing of polar bears on the Russian side is likely not sustainable. And so, you know, the agreement is very important for that, because it recognizes the rights of Chukotka natives to harvest polar bears within a managed system.

The quota strives for a 2 to 1 male/female harvest ratio, and can be adjusted as studies of the polar bear population are completed. In Alaska, skull and hide tagging requirements already in effect will remain in place, and the sale of polar bear parts will still be regulated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Any kind of commercial or sport hunting will remain illegal.

The Alaska Nanuuq Commission serves 15 communities in western Alaska. Their meeting in Shismaref is only the begging of a consultation process in villages throughout the region. Meetings will be held in Point Lay, Point Hope, Diomede, Savoonga, and Gambell in the coming weeks. Feedback on the harvest quota can be submitted online at TheAlaskaNanuuqCommission.org